Erin Cunningham
The National
July 13, 2009 - 12:00am

Every morning Nidal dons his blue camouflage fatigues, trademark of the Hamas Islamist movement that rules the Gaza Strip, and sets off to work as a civil policeman in the Jabaliya refugee camp outside Gaza City.

In the same camp, another policeman, Ismail, keeps his own uniform tucked neatly in a drawer, forbidden to wear it after Hamas fighters ousted his fellow Fatah forces from Gaza in a violent power struggle in 2007.

Ismail and Nidal are brothers, separated by just two years and an ideological abyss that has fractured the Palestinian landscape since the West Bank and Gaza Strip were divided politically two summers ago.

Ismail, 26, was a Gaza commander in the Fatah-led security forces routed from power in June 2007 and now in control of just the West Bank. His younger brother, 24-year-old Nidal, is a logistics officer in the Hamas-run police force now patrolling Gaza’s streets.

The two factions, each in control of their slice of the Palestinian territories, remain fiercely at odds.

Daily life in Ismail and Nidal’s home in Jabaliya is a delicate balancing act as a result, where the two tread lightly between the bonds of brotherhood and the fervency of rival political beliefs. They asked to be identified solely by their given names for security reasons.

Nidal is a strict Muslim, drawn to Hamas for its Islamist platform and austere reputation in Palestinian politics. Ismail, from the more secular-minded Fatah, dreams of the days he can again praise the virtues of Yasser Arafat’s nationalist revolution, while drinking alcohol on a Gaza beach.

Both, on separate occasions, have been injured by Israeli fire. Ismail still receives his police commander salary from the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority (PA) in Ramallah.

“Fatah and Hamas both began as movements for liberation and they completed each other,” Ismail said. “But after the division, it’s just been a struggle for who gets to sit in the most powerful seat – and nothing else. Are you happy now?” he asked, turning to Nidal.

Talking politics at the family dinner table is forbidden, their older brother, 38-year-old Salah, said. And Ismail and Nidal have both agreed not to hang Hamas or Fatah flags in the home.

“When Ismail turns on Fatah music, or begins talking about Fatah, Nidal will leave the room – and vice versa,” said Salah, who steers clear of both factions and sometimes finds his brothers’ political squabbling humorous.

“But when one of them is in a bad mood, they will play their party’s music all day to make the other one angry. It makes me laugh.”

Bickering aside, Ismail and Nidal act out every day what Hamas and Fatah leaders have so far failed to produce after six rounds of Egyptian-led negotiations at a national level – a kind of understanding.

More recently, a spate of political arrests in both Gaza and the West Bank has threatened to further derail the talks, with the next round rescheduled for July 25 in Cairo.

With hundreds detained in the past few weeks, Ismail’s name appeared last month on a list of Fatah members to be watched closely in the Gaza Strip.

Nidal, seeing the list, warned Ismail to stay home and keep a low profile. In another incident, when Ismail was arrested and accused of plotting attacks against Hamas in Gaza in 2007, Nidal secured his release within hours.

“I believe in my party and I am loyal to my job, but he is my brother,” Nidal said. “I can’t let them do whatever they want with him.”

Both Nidal and Ismail say they would give anything to see Palestinians united again – Nidal calls the days of the Hamas takeover and subsequent division the “saddest of his life” – but neither can envision an agreement that would temper the high level of animosity that exists between the two parties on the ground.

Egyptian-sponsored negotiations have focused on several key issues, including the make-up of future presidential and legislative elections and the creation of a non-partisan Gaza reconstruction committee, but it is the thorny details of establishing a joint Hamas-Fatah security force that has stymied the reconciliation process more than anything else.

“If we become one force, how can I work next to the man who tortured me?” asked Ismail, who said he was beaten badly while in Hamas custody in 2007.

Nidal said he also has Hamas colleagues who were tortured by PA security forces, and who are no more enthusiastic about joining ranks with their previous captors.

“The rift between Hamas and Fatah, it is so big it is unimaginable,” said Mkhaimar Abusaada, a political science professor at Gaza’s Al-Azhar University.

“There is no trust whatsoever between them; they hate each other. I don’t see anything in terms of reconciliation being implemented on Gaza’s streets any time soon.”

Ismail and Nidal vow to continue to live their lives together, however, with Ismail offering Nidal his own furnished bedroom for when his younger brother decides to marry.

Under Israel’s two-year-long economic blockade, finding and furnishing a room for marriage has become nearly impossible for Gaza’s young couples.

“We as Palestinians have been humiliated so much in front of the entire world,” Ismail said. “Everyone is asking us to unite and we’re refusing even that.”

“Enough is enough, we just want it to end,” he said. “I think if all brothers were like us, there would be no division.”


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